A fortnight in and I still haven’t seen Straight Outta Compton. Clearly I’m not down with the youth (weird to say, since I was barely at secondary school when NWA’s first record came out). Perhaps I’m just being snobbish about the saccharine nature of the modern Hollywood biopic. Maybe I can’t face another rags to riches story which glosses over the complex personal lives of this supremely talented group of individuals in order to, ironically, achieve a feel good factor which then ends up feeling empty due to the players being two-dimensional. However, having not actually watched the thing, it’s fair to say I shouldn’t be so judgmental.
Anyway, let’s face it, in all likelihood I’ll probably end up watching it at three am on Film 4, four years from now and having a thoroughly good time. So why mention it? Well, because NWA sit at the heart of my love/hate relationship with hip-hop. I love their aggression and rage. It feels like you don’t so much listen to them as suffocate in their explosive energy.
Sometimes, sat at home with something maudlin and meditative on the stereo, it’s easy to forget how visceral music can be. How it can have an effect on your very being. Some music can get in your bones. I remember seeing Mogwai at Reading a long, long time ago (we’re talking the best part of 20 years). Afterwards, an old friend – the supremely eloquent James Donohue – commented that the gig was like being crushed down into a small cube and then slowly evaporated off. I’ve been stealing that sentence ever since.
NWA are the personification of the unstoppable force. An angry, guttural yowl formed in a melting pot of inner-city mayhem. Yet, despite this, I also hate them. It’s their machismo about guns and ho’s. It’s their trumpeting of a gangsta lifestyle that has propagated in the fertile ground of hip-hop lyrics for the best part of thirty years now. Something that feels too close to a glorification of violence and misogyny to be truly enjoyable.
I continue to try, though, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, their music is truly great. Secondly, to expect NWA (from the blood-soaked, drug-addled streets of 80’s California) to make music which reflects the morals of a lad from a small town Lincolnshire is frankly insane. The only rule with hip-hop (and to an extent all art) is that it’s true to yourself. I’m sure NWA don’t have a huge amount of empathy for A Certain Romance by the Arctic Monkeys, yet both bands first records are consistently true to their roots.
So why the random rant about ‘keeping it real’? Well, it started earlier this week when I was watching Vice’s excellent documentary Hip-Hop in the Holy Land, a series of shorts focusing on the burgeoning scene in Israel and Palestine presented by Mike Skinner – of The Streets, fact-fans. Let’s pause here to remember how good a record A Grand Don’t Come For Free is:
The show’s modus operandi is a bit of background information, a couple of song clips and then an extended interview with an artist who is representative of a particular strand of the hip-hop sub-culture. I’ve only watched four episodes so far (as far as I can tell there’s a couple more to go) but the first thing that strikes you is the sheer diversity of these artists. There’s the Israeli ultra-patriotic, gansta pin-up; the Palestinian street kid painting lurid pictures of violence and poverty whilst railing against the iniquity of it all; the Hasidic Jew who finds modern hip-hop morally repulsive so attempts to subvert the stereotype; and the Hebrew Israelite trying to spread the word about the forgotten utopia he believes he lives in.
The second thing that strikes you is, whatever you think of these people’s viewpoints – which on the whole are pretty extreme – there’s no escape the fact that all of these artists are being true to themselves and you have to respect that. Which, of course, took my back to NWA.
You can find most of the episodes for this series on YouTube and I recommend you take an hour out of your weekend for something a little different:
Skewed Quiff will be back next week but in the meantime you can catch up on last month here. And a couple of highlights in case you don’t have an hour to spare: